One Year Later

Safe-HavenFrom the first thrilling moments of a life in danger and a daring escape, to the romantic first kiss, to the twist ending, “Safe Haven” entertained audiences around the globe. The film, released February 14th, 2013, reached almost $100 million in the box office worldwide against its $28 million budget. It took more than a Hollywood crew to create the magic in this American romantic movie—it took a city.

Based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel of the same name, which is set mostly in Southport, the producers knew the best place to capture the beauty of a small southeastern city was to film there altogether. Principal photography began in Southport and the neighboring city of Wilmington in June 2012. Lasse Hallström—who directed 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” 1999’s Academy Award winner “The Cider House Rules,” and the Oscar nominee “Chocolat”—was selected to take the helm for “Safe Haven.”

Starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel, “Safe Haven” is the story of a young woman who must escape a brutal past. Running away from her life in Boston, Katie (played by Hough) finds herself in the sleepy seaside town of Southport. She meets Alex (Duhamel), whose gentle and caring charisma simultaneously rescues Katie and forces her to face her history.

The film also features actress Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) and actor David Lyons (“ER,” “Revolution”). All were in Southport for filming, and many rubbed elbows with local citizens. (Click here for Smulder’s tweet about Oak Island’s Flying Pig Coffee Shop!) Even Duhamel’s real-life wife, Fergie of the pop/R&B group Black Eyed Peas, stopped by the city for a look into our Southern lifestyle.

Since its February release, “Safe Haven” has had quite the impact on tourism in Southport, too. Cindy Brochure, the city’s director of tourism and economic development, shares statistics concerning web visitors to

In February 2013, the site received 86,981 page views. That number is 11,250 unique views higher than the next largest month of this year! For the information request form on the city’s site, Brochure added the option for visitors to select “saw the movie ‘Safe Haven’” on May 28th. “Wish I had thought to do this in January 2013,” she muses. “Late better than never!” Brochure culled the results for us on June 17th, just 23 days in total.

Of 74 requests for information to relocate to Southport—yes, for folks to move here completely—47 of those people cited having seen the movie “Safe Haven” as the way they learned about Southport.

Brochure also provides statistics from the Visitor’s Center. In February 2012, the center had only 1,470 visitors. In February 2013, the center received almost double that number at 2,800. Guests of the Visitor’s Center have been on a steady increase since—and by the middle of June 2013, the center increased last June’s numbers by over 2,000. By June 17th, we had 7,437 tourists stop by the center. That’s not counting those who don’t come to the center.

Brochure was integral in acquiring many artifacts from filming, including Katie’s bike—a key piece of the story. The bicycle, along with the doors to Ryan’s Port Market, costumes worn by Julianne Hough, and many other items, are at home in a “Safe Haven” exhibit in the Visitor’s Center’s museum. Guests can check out a wall of photos Brochure took behind the scenes, too, all for free at the center (203 E. Bay St.).

Arlene Dovel, better known as Leenie, retired to Southport with her husband, Will, in 2006. She volunteers at the Visitor’s Center. She and her friend, Lois Gandy (a local artist), became part of the “Safe Haven” action during filming last summer.

“I have worked pretty closely with Cindy Brochure in assisting her in organizing the props that were used in the film,” Dovel shares. “Lois and I had the time of our livesduring the filming of ‘Safe Haven’ and these memories we will treasure forever.”

Cobie Smulders (left) as Jo and Julianne Hough (right) as Katie along the Southport waterfront during the filming of ‘Safe Haven.’ Photo courtesy of Relativity Media.

Cobie Smulders (left) as Jo and Julianne Hough (right) as Katie along the Southport waterfront during the filming of ‘Safe Haven.’ Photo courtesy of Relativity Media.

Dovel recalls forming the idea with friends to build a float for use in the movie’s recreation of Southport’s annual NC 4th of July Festival parade. “We were the Bunco Babes of Southport,” Dovel tells. The ladies in pink shirts can’t be missed during the parade scene of “Safe Haven.”

“We were one of the five floats that were chosen to be in ‘Safe Haven,’” she continues, saying they had to not only design the float but find a truck and trailer to make it. “That’s how it started. Who knew it would consume our summer. Our motto was, ‘Have bike, will travel,’ and did we ever.”

On August 8th, 2012, filming began for the parade. “As we were lined up and ready to go, the art director, Rosa Palomo, approached us and said they wanted to use the Bunco Babes float in one of the special scenes for the movie. We were instructed by one of the directors about our part in the scene and exactly what we had to do. It was the scene where Kevin (David Lyons) is looking for Katie at the parade. It was so exciting as David Lyons would drive his car, stop right behind our float, get out and look, and then slam a bottle down on the ground and take off again after he had not spotted Katie.”

The women were thrilled to experience the filming, regardless of the result. “Whether we made the cut or ended up on the ‘cutting room floor’ didn’t matter,” Dovel affirms. “We actually had the experience of participating in the  making of a movie in our little town of Southport!”

The memories continued as Dovel and Gandy met the cast outside of work. “We got to know everyone on the movie and they certainly knew us,” Dovel tells. “What we did find out was that the people from ‘Safe Haven’ were kind, hard-working, fun, and some of the nicest folks you would ever want to meet. From sitting on the beach talking sea turtles with Josh to taking pictures with Julianne and her parents at the local coffee shop, yep, we did it. At times we were more like Lucy and Ethel, but hey—this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. ‘Safe Haven’ gave two seniors the chance to feel like they were 12 again, riding bikes and looking for the movie stars.”

Jake Pfohl, the owner of the Southport restaurant Ports of Call Bistro, was glad to meet the cast of the film—and to serve them lunch and dinner often! “We felt really heartened by the arrival of the ‘Safe Haven’ team and made friends with many of them,” Pfohl describes. “Director Mr. Lasse Hallström was a frequent visitor from early on—he is a vegan and was pleased that we would prepare vegan dishes for him. He probably ate with us a dozen times, and once with his lovely wife, [actress] Lena Olin.”

The Hollywood stars who called Southport home for a short time during filming also brought along some famous friends. “[Hallström] held his first lunch with the three lead actors [at Ports of Call] when they arrived in Southport,” Pfohl says. “It was wonderful to meet Josh, Julianne, and David.  Julianne became the most frequent diner here and was exceptionally warm. She always gave me a hug—to which I did not object!  She even organized a girls’ night out with Hilary Swank and friends. Another night we were visited by Zooey Deschanel.”

Pfohl and the employees of Ports of Call also made friends with the crew of “Safe Haven.” He even got to know Ryan Seacrest, the host of “American Idol,” who was Hough’s boyfriend at the time. Seacrest wanted to surprise Hough with a birthday lunch at Ports of Call.

“I spent a week on the phone with Ryan’s assistant in Hollywood, who ordered everything for a six-course lunch, including the music to be played and signs on the wall, on the precise orders of Ryan,” Pfohl shares. “They were a delight to serve.”

The most exciting part for Pfohl was when Ports of Call was selected as a spot for filming. “We were scouted, and then a large crew of 50 showed up and set up after one of our Sunday brunches,” the owner recalls. “By 11 p.m., the scene had been shot after many hours of prep work. Our chef, Chris Wheeler, trained Josh on how to shuck an oyster, which Josh handed to Julianne during the romantic dining shot. We felt proud of being the site of the short, romantic dining scene, and proud on how beautiful the restaurant looked during the shot.”

The cast and crew also enjoyed dining at other locations in the area. At Port City Java, owner Emily Humphreys says they’d order everything but coffee—mocha freezes, iced chai, and fruit smoothies were among the regular orders. Taylor Cuisine, Café and Catering provided onsite catering during filming, and the restaurant was a favorite breakfast spot among the “Safe Haven” crowd.

Fishy Fishy Cafe in the Yacht Basin area was the closest restaurant to where most of the filming took place. In fact, it’s near the bar Old American Fish Company which was known as Ivan’s in the film. Cast and crew also visited Locals Family Diner and Slainte Irish Pub in Southport, and The Bar-B-Que House and CrazyCakeChicks—which provided the cake for Hough’s birthday—in Oak Island.

Steve Isley of the Oak Island Golf and Country Club says Duhamel is an avid golfer who often played their course. “Duhamel stayed near the golf course, and during his spare time, enjoyed the beach across from the course, playing golf and hitting range balls,” Isley tells. “After a relaxing game of golf, he went upstairs to eat and socialize at Duffers Pub & Grill.”

Hough, Duhamel, and Noah Lomax—who played Alex’s son, Josh—all worked out at Cape Fear Fitness with their personal trainers. Johnna Jalot, the owner of Four Legs Good Pet Boutique, saw both Duhamel and Fergie on a few occasions. “Locals were all a-twitter about taking spinning & Pilates classes next to these stars,” Carysa Overcash, the owner of Cape Fear Fitness, says.

During the holidays, Duhamel stopped in The Christmas House several times. “His mom collects Santa’s, and he bought two for her collection,” owner Anne Frazier explains. “He was so very sweet, stopping to take pictures with anyone who asked—including us!”

Hank Whitley of Southport Marina adds that the main staging area for the filming was held at the marina. Production meetings were held in the Coastal Meeting Room at the Wingate by Wyndham in Southport. “Nicholas Sparks stayed at the inn several times when in town for production,” general manager Baiju Vadgama shares.

Southport has a rich history as a film desination. On Thursday, June 20th, locals were able to view the premiere of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg’s “Under the Dome,” a TV mini-series filmed in Southport, four days before the public. On top of the multitude of movies and shows recorded in our area—“I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Crimes of the Heart,” and many more—we’re sure Southport’s position in Hollywood lore will only grow in years to come.

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